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Transfer pricing challenges in 2020

Due to the rescheduled corporate income tax return liability deadline, which was moved to 30 September 2020, many taxpayers have recently completed the review of transfer prices and the preparation of the related documentation for 2019. There seems to be plenty of time to meet the transfer pricing obligations for 2020, but it is already worth dealing with this issue regarding this year.

The economic effects caused by Covid-19 and the consequences of these effects on the group of companies may have caused significant changes. These changes can be quite complex: from changes in functions, processes and risks between related parties to the development and implementation of new transactions (e.g. risk management).

In most cases, the changed circumstances have an influence on the preparation of transfer pricing documentation, on the determination and review of the related parties’ transfer prices and on the identification of the market price. In this respect, the practice and methods applied over the last few years are in any case subject to review and this review could face significant challenges for the related companies.

The practice of recent years, the challenges of 2020

According to the relevant legal requirements, related parties are required to prepare transfer pricing documentation on prices applied in controlled transactions. In practice, in very simple terms, this means that the related company has to present in one of the main parts of the documentation the group of companies, the main activities within the group, itself, its role within the group, its controlled transactions subject to documentation obligations, as well as the activities carried out in connection with the controlled transactions, the resources used, the risks borne.

Regarding the other main part of the documentation, the related company has to prepare a comprehensive and well-documented comparability analysis to examine whether or not the transfer prices applied in its controlled transactions are in line with the market prices. This part is practically the soul and essence of the documentation: in this analysis, the company compares the transfer price applied in its controlled transaction with the market price and, depending on the result of the comparison, adjust or does not adjust the transfer price to the market price. (For the sake of simplicity, the first part of the documentation is called the description of transactions and the second part is called comparability analysis.)

Based on changes in international and domestic legislation and guidance in recent years, there should be a close logical link and cohesion between the two parts of the documentation. The description of transactions shall explain why the related parties apply the given transfer price in their transaction and describe the relationship between the transfer price and the market price determined in the comparability analysis. In practice, this is most important when the transfer price applied differs from the market price.

Given the potential impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the group of companies, the description of transactions will play a prominent role. In this section, it will be worth describing exactly every small detail that has had an impact on the operation of the group and the company, whether it is market trends or changes within the group, e.g. functional reallocation. Tracking these changes and presenting them in an appropriate manner can be a challenge for related companies. However, if the companies concerned document in a timely and continuous manner the effects and consequences emerged within the group and the publicly available information and statistics, this task cannot be considered unattainable.

This is not necessarily the case with comparability analysis: based on the practice of the last few years, in most cases comparability analysis is based on historical data extracted from different databases. The use of historical data is justified by the fact that independent data only become public later, even after one year. As a result, the thumb rule generally accepted in database searches is that for related parties the financial data of the given year are used in the analysis (e.g. 2019 data for year 2019), while for independent companies the data of the previous 3-5 years (in the given example, data between 2014 and 2018).

In recent years, in many cases, no major adjustment was needed between related and independent data, as differences between years were generally not significant and the differences were reduced using multi-year data and statistical methods. As regards 2020, this practice is certainly not applicable, as the figures for 2020 cannot be compared with data from recent years without adjustments.

It would be an obvious solution to overcome this problem if, for this exceptional year, the 2020 fact figures could be used and compared both for related and independent data. However, this is not possible under the current Hungarian transfer pricing regulations. For example, calendar year taxpayers have to prepare their transfer pricing documentation, including the comparability analysis and adjust their tax base with regard to the transfer pricing rules by the 2020 corporate income tax return, i.e. by 31 May 2021 at the latest, while independent data for 2020 will certainly not be available in databases at that time. Based on the experience of recent years, Hungarian data for 2020 are expected to be added to databases at the end of summer 2021, while foreign data are expected to be added at the end of 2021.

It is therefore clearly apparent that the related companies concerned face significant challenges in determining, reviewing and documenting their transfer prices. But who exactly are affected by these challenges and how seriously should these challenges be taken?

Companies concerned by the challenges and the importance of the issue

The problem outlined above is essentially relates to related companies which are obliged to prepare transfer pricing documentation. In Hungary, these taxpayers include companies which are medium and large enterprises. Practical experience has shown that these companies mostly need external databases to determine or examine transfer prices.

However, it should be borne in mind that while the transfer pricing documentation obligation affects a specific group of taxpayers among related companies, the Hungarian rules on transfer pricing adjustment apply to all related parties regardless of company size, so to small enterprises as well. It has not been the case in recent years that the Hungarian tax authority examined small enterprises from a transfer pricing perspective, however, it cannot be excluded that for 2020, the larger intercompany transactions of this group of taxpayers will also be in focus. Consequently, it can be beneficial for these companies to prepare a comparability analysis for 2020 to be prepared for possible tax audits.

Together with the above, it may appear that the transfer pricing challenges of 2020 concern only few taxpayers and thus relate to an insignificant tax issue. This is countered by the tendency that in recent years the Hungarian tax authority has focused more on auditing transfer prices, and the focus of these investigations has increasingly shifted from formal checks and findings to in-depth technical analysis and thus to larger findings.

All this is underpinned by the Hungarian tax authority’s 2019 yearbook. According to the yearbook, the tax authority carried out a total of 183,575 audits in 2019, of which 255 investigations also examined the transfer prices and the related obligations – that means a rate of 0.14%. At the same time, if we look at the net tax difference established, we get a different result: the Hungarian tax authority revealed a total tax difference of HUF 232.5 billion in 2019, of which HUF 10.2 billion was related to transfer pricing issues – from this point of view the ratio is 4.39%.

On this basis, the proportion of transfer pricing related audits can be considered relatively low, however, the proportion of the tax authority’s findings on transfer pricing issues is particularly high. As a result, an inadequately determined transfer price and prepared transfer pricing documentation may pose a significant risk. This risk is not only limited to corporate income tax, but may also cover local business tax, innovation contribution and, in some cases (e.g. for insurance and financial institutions) value added tax. The extent of this risk is increased by the fact that the tax authority will subsequently examine 2020, normally years later, when probably more experience and knowledge is available for the given year.

Possible alternatives to handle the challenges

The Hungarian tax authority has set up a separate section on its website to support the related companies on transfer pricing issues arising from Covid-19. However, specific guidelines are not yet available on the possible methods to determine and review transfer prices and to identify market prices. In the context of such a special year, these guidelines would be necessary and hopefully the tax authority will prepare and publish such materials.

Amendment of the legislation

In addition to the tax authority’s guidelines, as already referred to in the first part of the article, one of the simplest and most effective solutions would be to use the 2020 fact numbers to determine and compare the transfer price and the market price extracted from databases. In the case of intercompany financial transactions, this may even be possible, as the Hungarian Development Bank has announced a number of loan, equity and guarantee programmes during 2020. It is therefore appropriate to examine whether the conditions of these programmes are comparable with the conditions of the intercompany financial transactions and thus, whether or not these uncontrolled transactions can be used to determine the comparable market price.

However, in the case of other transactions (e.g. management services, manufacturing services, sales services), related companies are unable to use the 2020 independent database records under the current Hungarian legal requirements. In this case, as detailed in the above section of the article, the databases will be updated with independent financial data long after the deadline for the submission of the 2020 corporate income tax return and the preparation of the transfer pricing documentation.

In that regard, legislative amendments would therefore be needed to allow related companies to prepare their transfer pricing documentation for 2020 at a later date (i.e. not at the same time as their corporate income tax return) when the 2020 independent database records are available. Transfer pricing regulations in many European countries (e.g. Germany, Poland, Portugal, Czech Republic, Romania, Croatia, Estonia, Finland) already include similar possibility (not specifically for Covid-19, but on a general basis), so such Hungarian legislation would not be unprecedented.

Adjustment of independent data

If this legislative amendment is not going to be introduced, the approaches currently available and used less frequently so far can be taken as a basis. One of these approaches may be to apply a regression analysis. This analysis could examine the correlation between the independent data used for comparability analysis (e.g. financial data of independent enterprises) and the indicators of the national economy (e.g. GDP, inflation, employment, consumption) in recent years (taking into account a longer period of time). These long-term past correlations could be projected over 2020 with an appropriate analysis, i.e. an estimation could be given of the evolution of previous years’ independent data used for comparability analysis for 2020. Of course, this requires the development of an appropriate methodology that can be defended upon a tax audit and which can involve a lot of work and challenges.

Another approach could be to use trends and experiences from previous economic crises. Although the Hungarian tax authority clearly states on its website that the global crisis of 2008-2009 is not comparable to the effects of the pandemic on the economy, it may be worth examining in more detail whether parallels can be draw between the two crises with regard to the industry, group of companies and intercompany transactions in question. Indeed, the nature and graduality of the global crisis and the pandemic do differ, but there could be some similarities between their effects on the industry, the group of companies and the controlled transaction under review.

Request for an Advance Pricing Agreement

In addition, an alternative could be for the related companies to submit a request for an Advance Pricing Agreement on their controlled transaction(s) to the Hungarian tax authority. It is important to note that, subject to certain conditions, it is also possible to submit such a request in relation to ongoing intercompany transactions.

This procedure has the following advantages:
the taxpayer can consult the pricing of the transaction in question with the tax authority,
the tax authority has to examine the intercompany transaction and the transfer price corresponding to the market price,
during the procedure, the tax authority is not allowed to initiate transfer pricing audit on the controlled transaction(s) concerned by the request,
the tax authority issues a binding ruling on its decision on the market price, valid for at least three years and maximum for five years,
during the period of validity of the Advance Pricing Agreement, the related company does not have to prepare transfer pricing documentation on the intercompany transaction(s) in question.

In practice, the related company can therefore initiate a dialogue with the tax authority on the Covid-19 pandemic’s effects on the intercompany transaction and the pricing and obtain an official tax authority confirmation on the determination of the transfer price under the present circumstances. However, this procedure can be expensive and therefore, is not an applicable solution for all the companies concerned. In the case of transactions that are large in amount, involve significant risks or are complex, it is still worth considering taking advantage of this possibility.

Takeaway

In the context of 2020, the preparation of transfer pricing documentation, the determination and review of transfer price and the identification of the market price can be a major challenge for related companies. These challenges may concern not only related parties that are medium and large enterprises, but also related companies that are small enterprises.

Compared to previous years, it will take much more work and effort to prepare the appropriate transfer pricing documentation. Given the current Hungarian legislative environment, perhaps one of the biggest challenges will be the identification of the market price and, in this connection, the preparation of database searches and comparability analysis.

On the basis of previous practice, there are potential solutions to address the difficulties associated with transfer pricing issues in 2020 (both methodologically and strategically), but these should be applied carefully and always taking into account the characteristics of the controlled transaction under review.

At the same time, it would be of significant help to related companies in addressing the transfer pricing challenges of 2020 if, contrary to the Hungarian rules currently in force, the transfer pricing documentation could be prepared after the corporate income tax return deadline and the Hungarian tax authority would provide with specific guidelines on comparability analysis methods to meet the documentation obligation.